A Global Conflict; Lawrence of Arabia and the Arab Revolt
The popular narratives of the First World War told today (and particularly those used by supermarkets to sell chocolates at Christmas) usually play out against a familiar backdrop of a frosty northern France, complete with mud-sodden khaki, rat infested trenches, and a quaint football match dashed out between the barbed wire fences. Our collective memory latches on to the parts of the First World War that we deem to be significant to us, and consequentially allow other theatres of the war to fall by the wayside of our remembrance.
Matthew Leslie was a soldier who played his football on a much drier pitch, serving as a British sapper with 13th Royal Engineers in Palestine from 1918 to 1919. In Adam Matthew Digitalâs The First World War you can listen to an audio recording of Matthew (sourced from the Imperial War Museum) recounting his intrepid mission leading a group of men into the desert to locate, and then blow up, a Turkish railway line. Out in the sands of the desert, Matthew reports of his chance encounter with an unexpected party.
âAnd on the way we could see something, sand dust coming all, accumulating, wondered what the devil it was!... And when they got a bit nearer still, it turned out to be Lawrence of Arabia, with his escortâŠ He wasâhe was like anâlike an Arab, you could hardly tell the difference. But he â we had a little chat with him, and he said, âWhat are you fellows doing?â We told him what we were up to. âOh jolly good,â he said. âany rate, weâre off,â he said, âWeâve got another job to doâ. And away he went!â
Lawrenceâs âother jobâ was the Arab revolt, instigated by Hussein bin Ali, the Sharif of Mecca, which swept Northwards from Medina to attack the Ottoman Turks in 1916. Lawrenceâs autobiographical book The Seven Pillars of Wisdom tells the story of his role in the revolt, as a British military adviser to Emir Feisal, the son of the Sharif of Mecca. With military and financial assistance from the British, the united Arab forces captured the port city of Aqaba and launched raids against sections of the Hejaz railway, blowing up trains and bridges, cutting telegraph wires and capturing key strategic locations.
On the 30th September 1918 the revolt achieved its ultimate objective, as the vanguard of the Arab army rode into Damascus, capturing the city and ending 600 years of Turkish rule. Despite the resounding military success of the revolt, which crucially supported the British General Edmund Allenbyâs eastern flank, the British government reneged on their original promise to support an independent state of unified Arabs after the war, and instead divided up the territories they had captured with the French.
Matthew Leslie also accomplished his mission, which concluded in his planting explosives under the railway and laying in ambush before blowing up a passing Turkish supply train. It is his encounter with Lawrence and the Arab revolt, however, that he relishes retelling most.
âWe â we knew, weâd already been told that he was out there with the Arabs, trying to bring âem together, you see, and, to actually see him was really amazing, we â we were really, felt we were honoured, by Jove we didâŠ they did a lot of damage to the Turks. Yes, not half they didnât. Yes they helped us in the, in the final stages immensely.â
Particularly in the current political climate, it is easy to slip into a comfortably euro-centric narrative of the First World War, and to forget the experiences of those like the united tribes in Arabia. A wealth of material relating to the truly global reach of the First World War can be found in Adam Matthew Digitalâs upcoming resource The First World War Module IV: A Global Conflict which documents many of the theatres of the First World War that may have slipped from our collective memories.